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PG&E Bends to Grassroots Pressure Campaign to Bury Fire-Causing Power Lines Instead of plan to replace 50 miles a year, utility commits to burying 10,000 miles of overhead lines



Courtesy Sonoma Independent

PG&E’s sudden July 21 announcement to initiate what it called a Marshall Plan level effort to spend more than $15 billion to bury 1,000 miles of fire-causing overhead power lines a year for ten years marked a stark reversal of the utility giant’s argument that such an effort would be impossibly expensive. 

Potential liability for the Dixie Fire prompted the company’s recently hired CEO, Patricia “Patti” Poppe, to unveil the plan.“We know that we have long argued that undergrounding was too expensive,” Chief Executive Patti Poppe said. “This is where we say it’s too expensive not to underground. Lives are on the line.”

The announcement came two months after the Sonoma Independent, allied with the Davis Community Vision Alliance, launched a grassroots Bury Power Lines Now! Campaign.

The effort began with this article in the Sonoma Independent describing how climate change-induced high winds, hot weather and drought have caused overhead power lines in a relatively tiny area of the state to spark four of the six most destructive fires in the state since 2017.

The campaign to build awareness of the importance of burying a relatively small percentage of all overhead lines hosted a Change.org petition that was signed by more than 1,700 Californians and viewed nearly 20,000 times.  With the assistance of environmentalists from UC Santa Barbara, UC Berkeley, and UC San Diego, commentaries and letters advocating for The Bury Power Lines Now! Campaign appeared in various news sites including The Press DemocratThe Davis EnterpriseThe Pacific SunNews 93.1 KFBK and Mercury News.

Jonathan Greenberg,  a veteran investigative journalist who is founder of the campaign and of the Sonoma Independent, commented, “For the past four years,  as fires caused by overhead power lines have ravaged our communities, deteriorated public health, and added millions of tons of carbon to the air, PG&E has claimed that it is too expensive to bury the lines, despite the fact that this is by far the most important preventive measure that can be taken to prevent fires.

“We hope this is evidence of a new direction for PG&E, one that includes greater transparency, support for independently operated microgrids, and an absence of profiteering from the company’s necessary power line burying operations.” 

Prior to last week’s announcement, according to PG&E’s Wildfire Safety Plan, the company had completed the undergrounding of only 30 miles in Butte County for the year 2020, and planned to bury another 18 to 56 lines in 2021 and 47 to 146 in 2022. Now PG&E will bury 20-30 times the number of miles every year. 

The Bury Power Lines Now! Campaign’s petition sparked extensive public discourse on various social media platforms and awareness that long term solutions to fires were urgently needed. Nearly 150,000 Californians viewed posts about the issue on the Sonoma Independent’s Facebook page, which became a forum that drew hundreds of comments.

“In July 2018 the hot winds and utility line caused the Holiday Fire that burned much of my Goleta neighborhood. The windy ridges near residential areas are a good target for undergrounding,” Katie Davis wrote on the petition page.

“Preventive investment now can avoid billions of dollars and, more importantly, environmental destruction that we CANNOT afford at any level,” commented Kathlyn Hendricks.

The Bury Power Lines Now! Campaign engaged in a series of discussions with staffers from the state legislature, Senator Mike McGuire, and the Public Utilities Regulatory Commission. Sonoma Independent Editor Jonathan Greenberg also wrote to PG&E directly, but the company’s top communications officer was unwilling to answer any one of five specific questions that were asked of them about power lines, including whether they had the capacity to underground more than they were burying. 

Heather Caswell, founder of the Davis Community Vision Alliance, said, “It’s time for real solutions. I’m happy to see that our newly formed people-powered grassroots group of concerned citizens was able to strategically assist The Sonoma Independent on this historic statewide campaign.”

Delaine Eastin, former CA Superintendent of Public Instruction and Assembly Member, was one of the most prominent public figures to support the cause.

“I was gratified to hear PG&E volunteered to bury 10,000 miles of high voltage power lines in rural parts of our glorious state of California,” she said. “The horrific inferno fires of recent years, too many caused by those power lines, not only decimated some of the most beautiful forests on the planet but people’s homes, businesses, and memories. We are a much denser planet and we need to remember the wise words of Benjamin Franklin, ‘…an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.’”



Ron O

So, one wonders "where" they're getting $15 billion from, to do this. And, why now, given that those lines have been there for decades. If the lines are getting old, isn't that the actual problem?

No one seems to question whether or not it will actually make all that much difference regarding fires ultimately sweeping-through high risk zones. And might actually encourage more development in those zones, creating even more problems.

Fires are a natural occurrence (e.g., via lightning), and are both necessary and unavoidable. Probably more so, as the climate continues to change.

If a fire burns in the forest (and no people are around), does it actually make a sound? At least as far as the media is concerned?

If the government allowed the cost of living in these high-risk zones to be allocated to those living there, you wouldn't see development in those zones. That includes utilities, insurance, fire-fighting efforts, etc.

Has anyone actually calculated any of those costs? For example, the cost of providing service to one house in some small mountain town, vs. one house in a large town - which is surrounded by other houses which also receive service?

The primary problem is building (and rebuilding) in high-risk zones, not repeatedly and futilely attempting to force others to subsidize it.

But as usual, no one wants to look at that.

Todd Edelman

Excellent points, Ron. You covered a lot, but curious how solar and other independent systems could help many live in these areas who insist on it.

Just for fun: For $15 billion solar could be installed on 750,000 homes. Perhaps that is two or three million people --twenty times as many people as commented in the Sonoma Independent. While many non-urban homes connected to un-buried lines are not rural, less than one million people actually live in rural California, and many rural people work in agriculture.

OK, my math is only useful to very roughly demonstrate how much solar power could happen for all this money.

Roberta L. Millstein

Todd, I like that idea very much, and it makes a whole lot more sense to me. Of course, PG&E.

Ron O

I like Todd's idea, as well.

But I would assume there's at least some fire risk from solar electricity, as well. (Of course, that's not the only criteria.)

Bottom line is that places like Paradise and parts of Santa Rosa will burn again. I recall reading that Santa Rosa experienced a massive fire in that same area, some 50-60 years ago - before there were so many houses. And who knows how many times it burned before that.

Paradise is even worse. I understand that there was a fire burning near there quite recently, again. And that officials were quite concerned regarding emergency access even before the devastating fire a couple of years ago.

"Paradise Strong", indeed. Not as strong as inevitable fires.

With climate change, this situation will become worse. Burying lines would only eliminate or reduce one of the causes of fires. For the most part, fires are still inevitable, one way or another.

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